Person of the Year

The Merrick Herald's Person of the Year, Liz O'Shaughnessy

Caring for immigrant workers

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Last January, the long trailer in the parking lot at the end of Bennington Avenue in Freeport projected an unwelcoming image. The cement-gray exterior looked sterile and institutional. The sign above the front door, “Workers Available,” was faded. The wooden steps leading inside were worn and rickety. And out back the siding had ripped off in a storm, exposing insulation.

Clearly, the trailer had seen better days. Few, however, seemed to care.

The Freeport Trailer Hiring Site was conceived as a safe place for day laborers — most of them poor immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America — to stay while they waited for construction and landscaping jobs. Catholic Charities ran the site from 2002 to 2009, but closed the trailer because of low worker attendance. Fewer than two dozen laborers were coming each day, not enough to justify its cost, according to the nonprofit Hagedorn Foundation in Port Washington, which has been the site’s primary funding source in recent years.

The site would have closed for good if not for the commitment of one intrepid Merokean who had volunteered to teach English as a Second Language at the site in 2008 and 2009, Liz O’Shaughnessy. The Herald profiled O’Shaughnessy’s efforts to save the trailer in “Where day laborers get their fair shake” (Sept. 23-29).

The 46-year-old O’Shaughnessy, who grew up in Rockville Centre and graduated from St. Agnes High School there, created a nonprofit organization, CoLoKi Inc. (for Compassion, Love, Kindness), to raise funds for and run the trailer so that the workers, many of whom have no families and no savings, could be offered a modicum of dignity in a country that has increasingly shunned them in recent years. With a grant from the Hagedorn Foundation, O’Shaughnessy, who receives a small stipend for her work, was able to reopen the trailer in February, and she now attracts an average of 75 to 100 workers to the site each day.

O’Shaughnessy has displayed extraordinary courage, fortitude and determination as she has breathed new life into the trailer’s operation. She has proved that one person can make a big difference. For these reasons and more, the Merrick Herald is proud to name O’Shaughnessy its 2010 Person of the Year.

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